Malena, Flaca, Romina, Paz, and Anita are the five queer women whose personal revolutions intermingle with the dictatorship of 1970s Uruguay on the pages of Carolina de Robertis’s Cantoras. Set in the remote beach town of Cabo Polonio where the protagonists are vacationing together, they find themselves feeling at home in each other company and letting their guard’s down away from the harsh government control in Montevideo where they reside.
The book spans more than three decades, following the women as they continue to go back and forth between Montevideo and Cabo Polonio, where they eventually pool their money to buy a small beach shack. While the dictatorship eventually falls, their haven on the beach continues to stand — a metaphor for their enduring, familial love for one another. Although each character suffers great losses (Warning: There are descriptions of sexual violence in this book), de Robertis expertly makes space for both tragedy and empowering joy as the women learn to lead their most authentic lives under difficult — and sometimes nearly impossible — conditions.
The novel’s title, Cantoras (meaning a woman who sings), is a reference to the only language the women had to express their sexual orientation at the time, as our modern vocabulary did not yet exist for them. Even before the dictatorship took hold of Uruguay in 1973, the country shunned people who did not conform to heteronormative life paths. Although the five characters in this novel are fictional, de Robertis interviewed queer women who lived at the time to create the stories and personalities that she skillfully weaves together. De Robertis’s writing flows elegantly in and out of each woman’s narrative and feels a bit like a song sung in commemoration.
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Although the LGBTQ+ struggles that are illustrated in this book are unique to a particular time and place, these are universal themes that all people can relate to. In a recent interview on the Reading Women podcast, de Robertis said, “Among the questions that fueled this book are ‘How do we create refuge for ourselves and each other? And how do we live radiantly when the world around us seems bent on our erasure?’ That may be a question for a difficult time in Uruguayan history and for queer women within that history. But it’s also a human question: ‘How do we live radiantly in difficult times?’”
At a moment when we are all meditating on how to find a light at the end of a long tunnel, Cantoras is a lantern.
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